Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Umami Works


Adding Umami to Recipes
Mushrooms can be sautéed or roasted to develop their umami notes.
Mushrooms can be sautéed or roasted to develop their umami notes.
© Patrick Pleul/dpa/Corbis

Given its universality, it's no surprise that umami shows up in a world of cuisines, from the Danish smorrebrod (open-faced sandwich) of roast beef and pickles on sourdough rye bread, to the American BLT. Just the same, here are a few culinary tricks to maximize umami:

  • Use the rinds of Parmesan and other aged cheeses in a soup or stew. Drying condenses the glutamate content in the rind [source: Georgia Public Radio].
  • When using tomatoes in cooked dishes, include the jelly, the viscous, seed-containing part. Jelly contains up to four times as much MSG and nucleotides as the flesh [source: McGee]. Seed and roast the tomato flesh in uncooked dishes, such as salads or appetizers [source: Marcus].
  • Caramelize onions. As a bonus, slow-cooking in butter or oil also brings out the veggie's natural sweetness [source: Katz and Edelson].
  • Make stock from animal bones, including fish. If possible, roast the bones first [source: Marcus].
  • Eat active critters. Older hens and cows get a rap for being tough, but exercise requires enzymes to break down and rebuild muscle tissue, which frees amino acids. Likewise, choose distance-swimming fish like tuna and mackerel [source: Marcus].
  • Sauté or roast mushrooms before adding to recipes. Heat treatment brings out the umami notes of mushrooms [source: Katz and Edelson].
  • Cook with wine. As a fermented drink, wine itself provides umami. As an alcohol, it dissolves other foods' flavor molecules, including fats, adding flavor depth and body [source: Marcus].

In cultivating the umami in foods, you may also expand your repertoire of culinary skills. In a sense, you are developing your own personal umami: your ability to coax out and magnify food's natural flavors.


More to Explore